Nikon Learn & Explore

The Return of Rosie the Riveter:

A Documentary Photographer's Storytelling Portrait Project

By chance I talked with Deanne Fitzmaurice on the very first Rosie the Riveter Day.

Neither of us had known the significance of March 21 when we set that date for a phone talk about her project: photographing modern-day Rosie the Riveters.

If you're not familiar with Rosie, she represented American women working in factories and shipyards during World War II, and she was frequently and famously referred to as the image on the iconic "We Can Do It" poster that was used to recruit women to the workforce to take the place of men who'd gone to war.

About a minute into our conversation, Deanne said, "Guess what? Today, March 21, 2017, is the first-ever National Rosie the Riveter Day."

And sure enough, there it was online: Rose the Riveter Day—a "collective national effort to raise awareness of the 16,000,000 women who worked during World War II.”

"Well," I said to Deanne, "you've just written the first sentence of my story."


Deanne's assignment to photograph some of today's Rosies began in July, 2014. "Out of the blue I got a call from Madeline Janis, the executive director of Jobs to Move America," Deanne says. Part of JMA's mission is "to create and retain good manufacturing jobs, and to generate opportunities for unemployed Americans," and Ms. Janis's idea was a series of images of women in the transportation workforce.

And what brought Ms. Janis to Deanne?

"That's kind of funny," Deanne says. "She told me she Googled 'famous women photojournalists,' and I was one of three she narrowed it down to." Which is not surprising: Deanne is a widely-published Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.

After a bit of back-and-forth about the scope of the project—during which Deanne was assured it would be a collaborative effort and discerned that Madeline Janis was someone who "really cared about the mission, about making a difference in women workers' lives"—Deanne got the go-ahead.    

Later she had to make an adjustment to her approach. Deanne considers herself more a documentary photographer than a portrait photographer, and great documentary photographs take time.

It was time she wouldn't have. "These were working people," she says, "and some of the factories were a little sensitive about access, so the 'day in the life" approach would be hard to do."  So Deanne decided to think of the project as a series of environmental storytelling portraits—"a documentary style of portraiture"—that would depict the women's jobs.

As a storytelling portrait project, it was absolutely essential to get the details right. "Some viewers will know, others won't," Deanne says, "but you get it right for the subject and for yourself. You make sure it's the real deal."

Travels and Explorations

Deanne worked on the project for about a year and shot 15 portraits. She traveled to six states coast-to-coast, photographed in plants and factories, on top of the Brooklyn Bridge and down in the New York City subways. "We wanted geographical variety, diversity of subjects and a wide range of jobs," she says. "Madeline found the women. She and JMA are connected in the world of labor—they know a lot of labor leaders and were able to reach out in the industries."

Deanne generally had one day to scout locations and make the shot. Sometimes she'd scout the day before the shoot, sometimes the morning of. Often she'd spend a couple of hours walking through a factory looking for backgrounds that worked with the woman's job.

"I did some research and spoke to some women ahead of time—I like to make a personal connection before photographing—but the way it mostly worked out was that I had to make that connection after I met them for the shoot."

The time she spent in some towns was short, but it did give her the opportunity to see why these women's jobs were so important. "I would see what kind of jobs were generally available—fast food-places and convenience stores; basically minimum-wage jobs. Then I'd see these women, the Rosies. Their numbers are low—about seven percent of workers [in industrial manufacturing jobs] are women—but these are good jobs, skilled jobs for skilled people who are paid well, who have great benefits. The project was basically about bringing attention to the fact that these jobs exist, and that we need to get more women in these jobs and help them advance."

As a storytelling portrait project, it was absolutely essential to get the details right. "Some viewers will know, others won't," Deanne says, "but you get it right for the subject and for yourself. You make sure it's the real deal."

The Photography

With a day to shoot, and lights to set up, Deanne was fortunate that the project allowed her to travel with her long-time assistant. "I had everything I needed, including creative freedom, to make the project as strong as it could be," she says.

She shot with D4S, D800 and D5 cameras and four lenses: an AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, an AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G,  an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. Her lights were Profoto D1 monolights. "If I were to begin the project now, I'd probably use Nikon SB-5000 [Speedlights], which weren't available at the time," she says. "I've been using them lately, and I love them, especially for travel because they're so light."

Deanne spent an hour to an hour-and-a-half with each of her subjects. "That was about the right amount of time—I mean, they're really on the job. But I'd spend two hours setting up the camera and the lights with my assistant standing-in for the Rosie so everything was completely dialed in for the shot."    

The biggest photographic challenge was reflections. "There was always so much metal around, and I had to really control and tweak the lights and watch the angles." To direct and control the light she often used Cinefoil—"fold it, bend it, wrap it to direct the light and cut down reflections."

Most shots went according to plan, but there were times when Deanne and her Rosie had to improvise. "I thought we'd be able to shoot in the factory with Stacy Corcoran, an electrician in Illinois, but  at the last minute we weren't able to. I found some railroad tracks in town that looked like they'd work for the shot; then the sky went gray and we were in a downpour, out there with the lights and everything. Luckily we got a little bit of a break in the rain, and it turned out to be one of my favorite photos. Everything has a glisten to it, and we popped the light in there against the dark sky so she popped against the background."

Pictures at Exhibitions

At first, Deanne's images were intended for JMA's website, social media and blog posts. "But after I'd shot for a while, Madeline said, 'We have to make an exhibit out of these photos.' She went to Union Station in Los Angeles, where there'd never been an exhibit—but she thought, Okay, all these trains, and we have photos of women who make the trains, let's see if we can get an exhibit. And she got one. And through a curator we were able to get original Rosie the Riveter prints as well. I think five of the women I photographed showed up for the opening in May, 2015."

Next came the appearance of Deanne's Rosie portraits at the White House United States of Women Summit in June, 2016. An exhibit was also mounted at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC, and a public art exhibit came to Manhattan earlier this year, with the photographs in display cases lining streets in the financial district.

Final Frame

At the end of our talk, when I asked Deanne if any of the modern-day versions knew about the original Rosies, she wrote the last sentence of my story for me.

"I don't know," she said, "but they sure do now!"